30 September 2018

A Policy Framework for Nurturing in Education

Hi, I'm Don Berg, an independent scholar. 

My colleague from Reed College, Kayla Good, and I presented the poster shown below entitled "Nurturing is the Foundation" Policy Framework at the 6th International Self-Determination Theory Conference. 
A policy framework for nurturing in education is necessary because of the consistent data that shows how mainstream schooling undermines the well-being of teachers and students.
I refer you to my research on intrinsic motivation for further information about the undermining of well-being in schools.

The Moral Mandate for a Policy Framework for Nurturing in Education

One of the key features of the policy framework is the Moral Mandate. 
The following argument for including the moral mandate in this policy framework is presented on the poster.
  • Empirical research suggests that political decision making is guided by emotional and moral sensibilities as much as, and perhaps more than, rational evaluation (Haidt, 2007; Haidt, 2012; Stone, Johnson, Beall, Meindl, Smith, & Graham, 2014). 
  • According to research by Clifford, Jerit, Rainey, and Motyl (2015), “Through their appeal to specific moral foundations, elites are able to 'moralize' political issues, facilitating (and reinforcing) the connection between people's moral beliefs and their policy attitudes.” 
    They further suggested that targeting the particular moral foundations endorsed by opposing sides of an issue will encourage consensus among people with differing moral beliefs. 
  • Lakoff & Johnson (1999) claim that cognitive semantic research shows that the necessity of nurturance for well-being is one of the experiential foundations of moral reasoning. 
  • Thus, the moral mandate is reasoned to be resonant with most conceptions of morality independent of the particular moral foundations that may define the sides that have been taken on an issue.
    Explicitly activating this moral conception is intended to evoke more positive and proactive responses to the empirical findings that follow and to the policy implications spelled out after that. 
    Political elites on either side of the issue could adapt specific moral messages to appeal to their partisans without compromising the integrity of the framework, given that under the Measure, Manage, and Protect Nurturing provisions, implementation is to be guided by empirical data on need support and patterns of motivation and engagement.

The Poster and Support Resources

Here is the poster (jpg, 1Mb) about the resolution that we presented at the 6th International Self-Determination Theory Conference in June, 2016, in Victoria, BC, Canada. (For a more readable 6Mb version e-mail me.)
The donors who contributed to making this happen are listed below.


  • Vasiliy Safin
  • Alan M Burnce
  • Holly Allen
  • Nicholas Kappeyne
  • Dixie Caris
  • Cassandra E Goecks

29 September 2018

Self-Directed Education vs Progressive Education

[I]t is the child’s brilliance, not a teacher’s, that enables excellent education.
To my mind the quote above, from this article, is silly. The article makes the distinction between Self-Directed Education (SDE) and "Progressive Education" by suggesting that progressive educators inherently believe in the right of educators to coerce children into participation in academic activities, albeit academic activities that are more interesting and engaging than in traditional, non-progressive schools. There is no such thing as a brilliant child without a community of people, including adults, enabling them to be so. The brilliance that we want to see in children is not something they accomplish on their own, it is something that the community around them makes possible. The silliness of that quote is a consequence of the inherently collaborative nature of human life. The brilliance is a result of both the child and the adults, not either of them alone. 

However, using the coercive power of communities and families to expose kids to the particular academic activities favored by the adults can be short sighted. SDE is simply the most strategic use of coercive powers and saying there is an absence of coercion is mistaken. SDE is a movement to advocate for the most minimal use of coercion possible. Adults are encouraged to reserve the use of it to preserving the continuity and function of the community (which includes families). SDE parents and school staff use coercion when the behavior of a member of the community threatens the viability of the community. For instance, a former student of mine got kicked out of a democratic school in the Bay Area when he was unwilling to participate in or obey the dictates of the governance structures that make the community work. SDE does not advocate against all coercion, only the least meaningful uses that do not directly contribute to the viability and cohesion of the community. Coercing academics is not considered helpful, so it is not done. Participation in the governance of the community is indispensable, so it is coerced, if necessary.

To me SDE is fundamentally progressive in it’s approach. SDE is at the extreme of progressivism, it is not distinct from it. I agree that it is important to emphasize the differences in power structures between the established models of SDE and schools that have power structures that force students to be subjected to certain academic content. But when I read the descriptions of progressivism quoted in the article then it seemed clear to me that SDE is a logical consequence of those commitments. How can a school be taking social justice and student voice seriously and yet have a power structure in place that coerces students into some academic activities? That seems like an obvious negation of student voice and if they do enough of that their school could end up with a socially unjust outcome. 

Seems to me that we in the SDE movement should be helping "progressive" schools to have more integrity with their stated commitments rather than trying to distance ourselves from them. We should be helping them to understand how to listen to student voice in ways that reach deeper than whether or not they are having fun. In the article there is part of this quote from Alfie Kohn (here):
[There is a] tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming.
This is a mis-characterization that represents a legitimate fear that some people have. If the adults abdicate responsibility for the community then the school will not be viable. Here's another quote from Kohn (here):
"I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions."
Kohn is correct if what he means by "total autonomy" is an utter lack of constraints on behavior. However, he grossly mischaracterizes Sudbury in that case. Before addressing that problem I want to make sure we are clear about Kohn's view. Here is a quote from Kohn in an essay in which he is directly addressing his views on this topic:
The possibility that autonomy or freedom may not be the only good is a particularly relevant challenge to pose to libertarians.  For me, there are other goals even in a political or social framework, for example the idea of community.  When autonomy is valued to the exclusion of other goals, we run into problems of different kinds.  Today, my concern is primarily about what that means for kids, especially in an educational setting.
The question I’d like to pose is whether authoritarians and educational libertarians may have a very curious and paradoxical connection that would discomfit them both — namely, a shared belief that all authority, all adult involvement in the lives or learning of kids, must be top-down, controlling, manipulative, and indeed autocratic.  The two groups differ only on whether that’s a good thing.  For educational libertarians, adult involvement — especially when the adult takes the initiative to create with kids, or in some cases for kids, a curriculum, a set of principles, and other things that form brackets around education — must be bad.  And therefore the only way to escape bad control is to keep the adults at the periphery of the picture for as much of the time as possible.
It is important to raise this concern about the relationship between community and autonomy. However, Kohn seems to have a different understanding of autonomy than I do. I think he is correct to question the notion that autonomy should be elevated to a primary sacred value that could undermine community. However, my take on autonomy is based on my studies in psychology, so it is not a value, at all. It is a primary human need on a par with air, water, food, shelter, and sleep. It is simply a categorical error to consider it a value. The need for autonomy is the underlying motivation for valuing freedom. 

We also have a primary human need for relatedness. This is the underlying motivation for the commitment to community. This means that both needs are necessary, they are both as indispensable as air. We would be making a grave error if we express either of the values for freedom or community to the exclusion of the other. I would argue that both the libertarians and the authoritarians are wrong exactly to the degree that they short change one need or the other.

Kohn misunderstands democratic schools like Sudbury. He does not appreciate how they actually strike a balance between freedom and community that is educational effective because of the structures they provide. He is correct to point out the necessity of structure, but he is mistaken to believe democratic schools fail to provide it. Sudbury, despite its libertarian rhetoric, provides highly structured educational experiences. The structure is social, not academic. "Staff members, along with students, participate in the School Meeting, the Judicial Committee, and in various School Corporations (special-interest groups) and Committees." (quoted from here) The kids who attend Sudbury, and schools like it, either voluntarily participate in the democratic governance structures or will be coerced to do so (expulsion being a real threat even if there is an extensive process before getting there.) That is their curriculum and it is not optional. 

Any brilliance exhibited by students at Sudbury is because the adults created a social structure that supports the children to do so. It is a highly structured community experience in which most of the people probably feel free most of the time and certainly more of the time than that would in more coercive schools. The key point is that there is a balance between the values of freedom and community that is highly structured. And that structure was created by adults who are held legally responsible by the State. I am not sure if the corporation registered with the State of Massachusetts is the same as the School Meeting (I suspect that the legal entity delegates decision making authority to the School Meeting), but it is the whole collaborative community that is responsible for the brilliance, not any one person or sub-group of people within it. The adults are an indispensable part of the collaboration and their efforts facilitate the outcomes, even if their role may not fall under the term "teacher" as it is used in the usual sense. 

28 September 2018

Lifelong Learning is Lifelong Thrival

Lifelong learning is commonly thrown into the purpose statements of schools and educational institutions of all kinds. Lifelong learning is a buzz word for something important, but what?

The following is an excerpt from my book Attitude First: A Leadership Strategy For Educational Success(Trafford, 2004) talking about the role of attitude in engaging students starting from the idea of lifelong learing:

Lifelong Learning Reconsidered

The most important challenge for schools today is the pervasive disengagement of students from the learning process. 
It has become commonplace for schools to set lifelong learning as a key goal in response to patterns of student disengagement. 
The problem is identifying success. 
What is lifelong learning? Unless you define it, you cannot tell if the goal has been met. 
Therein lies a difficulty with the term itself; “lifelong” clearly implies that your result can only be assessed after the life-span has ended. 

Improving schools to achieve a system that supports thrival for everyone requires that we each take personal responsibility for how we are each “being” school. 
We have to strive for thrival. 

Achieving thrival does not require anyone else to change; your attitude is what counts. 
The improvement of schools is too important to leave to those in positions of power, authority, and expertise. 
It is up to you and me. 
If we lead, then the leaders will follow, they won’t have any choice. 

So let’s reconsider lifelong learning. 
Given this thrival theory, how will we be best able to assess the potential for lifelong learning amongst students? 
As John Dewey wrote in 1938, “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.” 
Thrival begets thrival. 
If we teach children to thrive, then they will learn exactly the skills they need to thrive in the future. 
The lessons of thrival are learned through the investment of attention, navigating by values and actively collaborating on the creation of your life stories. 

Meaningful assessments will have to reflect the six states of mind that compose our subjective experiences and our ability to attend. 
Of course, assessing states of mind is a tricky business under the best of circumstances, so this is a substantial challenge. 
However, we don’t need to wait for the official systemic assessment tools of the testing industry because most humans have a pretty good, though not perfect, ability to assess the state of mind of others. 
We refer to our holistic sense about states of mind by the term “attitude”. 
To revise Dewey’s statement, I would suggest, “if we can achieve a good attitude in the present moment, then that is the best preparation for achieving good attitudes in every subsequent moment. Discovering how to achieve a good attitude is the only preparation that amounts to anything in the long run.” 

Engagement is the first prerequisite for attaining the goal of lifelong learning. 
I understand disengagement as the choice not to actively influence your own course on the river of life. 
Disengaged people choose to passively go with the flow rather than take an active part in navigating toward a more favorable outcome. 
If you've ever floated in an inner tube on a river, then you know how it feels to have limited influence on your own course and the sensitivity of your attitude, which way you are facing, to your ability to exercise that limited influence. 
I remember riding down one of the three rivers in Three Rivers, California, when I was a kid. 
There was a particular section that was great fun for riding down in our inner tubes; so my two older brothers and I would go down that section, pull out, and walk back up to do it again. 
This was a rapid section in three parts, and in between the second and third parts, you had to paddle yourself from one side of the river to the other in order to catch the last good section. 
Well, the inner tubes we were using were quite large and I was much smaller than my brothers, so I could barely reach the water in order to paddle since—in the sitting position—only my forearms hung down toward the water. 
The first few times I tried the run, I would get over the first two sections fairly well except that at the bottom of the second rapid, I would inevitably brush against some rocks and start spinning (an uncontrollable attitude). 
By the time I got back under control, it was too late to catch the good part and I’d wash up on the shallows just below. 
Well, I finally figured out that riding on my belly gave me better paddling control since my whole arm hung over both sides, and I was able to get my attitude under control in time to cross the moving river to get in good position for the final fall. 
It was a triumph of ingenuity for me because not only did it get me over the final obstacle, but my brothers, seeing the advantages in maneuverability and the extra thrill of facing down the rapid, quickly copied my technique. 
Soon, we all became accomplished experts at maintaining attitudinal control even as we were swept along by the immense forces of nature. 
(Disclaimer: The face-down position is of limited application since you also run the risk of having your face smashed into the rocks. My brothers and I were lucky enough not to have more than minor injuries throughout these white-water adventures.)

Now consider using the metaphor of floating down the river to talk about what actually happens in learning/teaching/schooling and education. 
We are immersed in learning all the time. 
We can navigate through it. 
We can observe its movement, as well as our own movement within it. 
I do not know where it comes from nor where it is going to, but I am quite sure that those of us in it are not its true source. 
Even as we are flowing within it, it can also flow through us. We can stay on the surface or we can dive into its depths. 
The experiences available to each of us in this flow is determined partly by the position and surroundings in which we find ourselves and also the quality, quantity and nature of what we allow to flow into and out of ourselves. 
Every moment that flows in and out of ourselves, in turn, influences our position and surroundings. 
Our on-going dynamic interactions with each other and the world within this larger flow create our moment-to-moment experiences. 
At any given moment you have a whole set of relationships with “the current”, other individuals in proximity to you, and with yourself: an attitude.

The only tools you have are the four channels of attention: physical energy, emotional connection, mental focus, and spiritual alignment. 
Along those channels you can go in eight directions—protect, create, participate, be idle, identify, understand, be free or affect. 
Disengagement means you sit back in your inner tube and accept whatever fate the river has in store for you. 
Engagement on the other hand means that you are going to paddle and kick to get to the good parts. 
Full engagement means you won’t just sit back and paddle casually, you’ll get down on your belly and face the river to make sure you get all the good rides you’re capable of catching. 

So what can we do with these four channels? 
How do we use these tools to get belly down and paddle? 
Loehr & Schwartz {in the book The Power of Full Engagement} recommend developing personal rituals that you establish and refine in order to more effectively expend and recover your energy in each of the four channels. 
A more general description of the process of increasing your investments of attention are to first, play around with techniques that seem promising. 
If you find that playing around seems to be effective at making improvements, the second step is to dive into the mainstream of the community that teaches that technique and work at gaining mastery. 
Finally, you need to develop a strategy for training yourself for the long haul and actively seeking sustainable balance. 
The signs of success in all three steps are basically the same, enthusiasm for continuing to engage, joyful personal discoveries, and an increasing sense of overall satisfaction and fulfillment.

The lifelong learning process is one that is best learned by example. 
If you insist on using the term lifelong learning, then it is important to know what you mean by it and also put it into practice.
Lifelong learning is not actually optional, the real question is whether your lifelong learning is actually serving to create well-being. 
Lifelong learning that hones the skills of human and ecological exploitation, fuels the fires of hatred, and indiscriminately spreads chaos, disease and destruction is wrong. 
This was a excerpt from my book, Attitude First.
The rest of this site is concerned with how to change the context of teaching by shifting education policytowards supporting teachers better.

27 September 2018

My Big Teaching Idea

My big teaching idea came on a baseball field. 

One day while teaching an eight year old to hit a ball with a bat I had a vision that altered all my teaching ideas forever. 
I homeschooled other people's kids for about five years and it was during that time that I was blessed with an insight that has guided my work ever since. 
Dale and I were at the baseball field in the park across the street from my house, where I offered private teaching services. 
Our friend and my other student that day, eight-year-old Keith, was helping us as best he knew how. 
Keith was encouraging Dale and making every suggestion that popped into his head. 
Keith, in contrast with Dale, was a natural and confident athlete but had a great store of patience for helping his friends.

Keith and I had thought of just about every teaching ida that could be thought of to help Dale. 
We tried different bats, balls, pitching distances, holding the bat differently, and every teaching idea we could think to adjust Dale and his performance. 
We also varied our own behavior by taking turns pitching, talking about how we remember learning to bat and demonstrating our own batting techniques. 


I always knew Dale was challenged. 
He was the first child I ever taught (of very few) who truly needed his prescription of Ritalin.
Dale was born drug affected and his adopted mother was a school district employee who had studied prenatal development and specifically the effects of maternal drug abuse. 
She figured by Dale's pattern of neurological dysfunction that his mother had probably done some heavy cocaine in his fourth month in her womb, not to mention whatever she was doing when he was born. 

So, after what seemed like hours of unsuccessful coaching, there I was pitching a dirty white baseball with red dirt-dulled stitches underhand to Dale standing with an shiny aluminum bat only 10 or 15 feet away. 
At that particular moment, just as I was releasing the ball (that Dale would swing mightily at, but miss) I saw something. 
In that instant I made an observation that lead to a teaching idea that has driven my fascination with education ever since. 
Just as I uncurled my fingers and the ball was released to fly towards Dale, he twitched, ever so slightly. 

Birth of a Teaching Idea

That twitch did not reveal to me how to help him. Only our determined, relentlessly loyal and supportive practice eventually helped him improve his batting. 
What occurred to me was a very peculiar vision of the task that I had chosen as a profession. 
Suddenly, every one of the details that Keith and I had attempted to adjust became dimensions in what mathematicians call an n-dimensional space. 
An n-dimensional space is an imaginary space that has an arbitrary number of dimensions, anywhere from one to infinity. 

Since the task itself was a fairly straight forward physical coordination of motor skills, it might be described by a small number of dimensions; perhaps just bodily orientation, muscular readiness, perceptual alertness, and appropriate intention. 
Within this imaginary space in which the behavior occurs there is easily imagined a particular region in the space that we would call, “success”. 
My job, as the teacher, is to help him, as the student, to move out of the space of “failure” and into the space of “success.” 

This is a pretty straight forward general teaching idea but what occurred to me upon observing his twitch was that Dale may have had things thrown at him before under less favorable conditions and his emotional response to having something thrown was something that I could neither control for, nor reliably find out about. 
But, rather than simply adding a single dimension of emotion, this insight lead me to realize that there were a potentially infinite number of dimensions if I wanted to take into account his whole history with bats, balls, throwing, where we were, the time of day, his experience with men, and everything else that could possibly affect his mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual state of being. 
The challenge of this teaching idea is not only moving the results of his performance but accurately discerning, from nearly infinite possibilities, both the relevant dimensions and the appropriate direction to move within each of those dimensions. 
Not to mention the challenge of figuring out what combination of causal factors are relevant in each dimension and responsible for movement in the desired direction. 

As you can imagine, this teaching idea was initially a little overwhelming. 
But over time, as I have studied and read in various fields my understanding of it has gone through a metamorphosis. 
My insight was not simply a realization of how potentially daunting teaching can be, but was the revelation that how the student experiences the world is the fundamental currency of our exchange as teacher and student, as opposed to the traditional notion that the currency of teaching is teachers delivering knowledge, skills and information to students. 
What my insight points to is not the traditional approach of accounting for teaching performances with students, but instead points to developing a map of experiences that actually accords with the student's world. 
But the mapping metaphor only became clear over more time and continued metamorphosis of my teaching ideas.

Developing My Teaching Idea

Around the same time I was teaching Dale, my girlfriend and I were developing the spiritual dimension of our relationship. 
She was a musician and we also had an extensive ongoing discussion about how important an audience is to the performance of music. 
More specifically, how the mystical potential of music to move the audience is similar to the experiences that arose out of the spiritual dimensions of sexuality. 
In the course of this extended conversation I talked with her about several pivotal experiences that I have had as both an audience member and as a performer. 

Once when I was in my early twenties I was attending a conference at Portland State University.
One of the sessions I attended featured this amazing black woman with elegant streaks of grey in her hair, whose name I cannot recall, who was standing in front of a half empty room, and speaking on a subject that was only a tangent to my interest in the conference. 
I was seated in the middle of the room but found that she was fascinating. 
Besides the fascination with her what sticks with me is that at the end of her presentation she went to the back of the room and stood by the door to meet those of us who had heard her presentation. 

I thought what she said to me a little odd at the time because she remarked that I was a really great audience. 
She said how she really appreciated how much energy I put into listening to her and gave her so much to work with. I left the room slightly bewildered because I had never heard of a presenter or performer giving an audience member such a specific compliment. 
Of course, you always hear musicians talking about how great an audience is, but she was not being the least bit general and she did not say anything even similar to other people whom she talked to before and after me. 
And she wasn't flirting, either, her gaze was pure appreciation and moved on without hesitation to the next person in line. 
Later in life I got similar compliments and even attended some workshops that focused on listening skills so I began to understand that certain ways of paying attention can sometimes be unusually rewarding for all concerned. 
But, it was in that conversation with my lover that it all came together and I realized that, in fact, I could sometimes be an audience as intensely as being a lover. 

The Importance of Context for My Teaching Idea

This realization about the value of being audience brought me back to my most cherished memory of being a performer. 
At the end of my second year at Reed College I was cast to play Laertes in the “15-minute Hamlet” a comic parody of Shakespeare's classic by Tom Stoppard. 
This was also the last of only a handful of times that I took a hallucinogenic drug, in this case LSD. 
The play was being done as the final project for a friend of mine in the Directing class which usually only played one performance on the last Friday of regular classes for the year. 
But at Reed we have a tradition called Renn Faire that takes place on that weekend at the start of reading week which is a week without classes that precedes final exam week. 
Renn Faire started out as a Rennaisance Faire back in the late sixties but has since been transformed into a sort of psychedelic celebration of playful indulgence with every kind of whimsical distraction imaginable. 
So, we scheduled a special second performance for Saturday afternoon of Renn Faire.

We had a very successful Friday night performance (the one that counted for the director's grade.) 
But, after getting our costumes on and heading out to the front lawn where we were planning to perform, it started raining. 
The director puzzled out how to proceed and decided we would simply move ourselves into the Student Union (S.U.) building and delay the start time to allow for the change in venue. 
Out on the front lawn a marimba band was just getting rained out, so we ran around announcing that we would shortly be performing in the S.U. 

I have never before or since seen the S.U. so packed with human beings. 
It was wall-to-wall with people on the floor, sitting in chairs, standing on chairs and filling the balconies on either end as well. 
We had a tiny little space in the middle to work with. 
Now, consider the situation, there was a seething sea of sweaty college kids who just came in out of the rain after dancing to the happy music of marimba, we're having to improvise adjustments to all our movement to accommodate these masses of people, including our sword fights and my world was beginning to become chemically enhanced. 
Fortunately, the performance went off flawlessly and everyone was ecstatic. 

The amazing thing about that peak experience was the confluence of many factors that had everyone focusing attention in a particular way. 
The primary cause of the intensity I experienced was the exchange of energy, the exchange of attention, between the audience and us performers. 
The feedback between me, as performer, and my audience is very similar to the feedback between lovers, or the feedback between a teacher and student, or the feedback available in any meaningful relationship.

I believe that the conditions in the S.U. that day, the context within which we performed our play, were coincidently ideal to generating an ecstatic relationship between us and our audience. 
Some aspects of the context were carefully honed to bring that relationship into being (i.e. the script and our rehearsed delivery of it) but there are many other factors that simply arose spontaneously out of the moment (i.e. the rain that drove us all into the S.U. and our ways of adapting our scripted actions to the very cramped “stage” area.) 
It cannot be argued that we were especially talented performers, nor that the script made it a sure thing. 
What made it work so well was the synchronicity of the whole, the confluence of individuals in a culture embedded within a society on a planet in which cells aggregated to form the individuals who could be in that space to experience that series of moments in time and have them mean something extraordinary. 
To say that another way, the experience that I had was significantly affected by the molecular influence of LSD on my brain, it was significantly influenced by my choices the night before, it was significantly altered by the organizational tradition of Renn Faire, it was significantly enhanced by the societal tradition of theatrical performance, and it was significantly determined by the meteorological effect of rainfall. 
I cannot discount any of these factors in understanding what this experience means to me. 
All together I have come to refer to this diversity of factors as context. 

The realization that the context of my experience had such a profound effect on its quality leads me back to thinking about Dale and his experience of learning to bat. 
The insight I had at that time was a visualization of the immensity of the contextual factors that contribute to every moment of our experience. 
It is understanding the importance of context that makes this teaching idea big.

Relationships Are The Heart of My Teaching Idea

In the view of traditional educational philosophy the central teaching idea is to create a sufficient teaching performance such that the student, as audience, is moved in some particular way. 
That movement was traditionally thought of as acquiring units of knowledge, skills and information as a simple replication of the teacher's performance in some specific, limited way and an accumulation of these performances results in education. 
If the teacher can bat then the teacher, by some performance moves the student to acquire the ability to bat. 

My vision makes a mockery of this traditional teaching idea of instructional accounting for student performance. 
Having seen, with Dale, the sheer number of possible influences past and present on one straightforward physical coordination task with just a single student makes me think that the idea that you could account for a whole classroomful of students is patently absurd. 
By taking my vision of this teaching idea seriously we now have to account for a potentially infinite number of factors for each individual student. 

But I have also seen that being in that n-dimensional space with my student was the most natural and simple access to knowing exactly what was needed without having to account for all the details. 
Seeing that there is a simple, natural access to right action completely alters the challenge of teaching. 
It changes it from a nearly impossible technical delivery challenge into a relationship challenge. 
The teaching idea is not about how to create a teaching performance that will invoke, inspire or otherwise cause learning to occur. 
The important teaching idea is about how to relate to the student in an appropriately intimate way such that you can share in their journey of life and eventually influence their navigation and cartographic practices.

My big teaching idea is to create deeply meaningful relationships with students so that they trust and respect teachers enough so that together they can share in their journey through life. 
Together they can figure out the kind of people they want to become and begin to make maps of reality that will help everyone get there, together.
The rest of this site is concerned with how to change the context of teaching by shifting education policytowards supporting schools to align the various levels of their existence for creating and maintaining well-being. 

John Taylor Gatto's Big Teaching Idea from the Winter, 1999 issue of Yes! Magazine.

26 September 2018

What is Teaching?

I take the literal core of teaching to be facilitating someone else's learning process. 

The literal core of a concept, if there is one, is the unquestioned aspect that everyone normally agrees is true about an idea. 
Most of the time a literal core is merely a conceptual skeleton that requires metaphoric flesh to be useful in thinking about the complexities of the phenomena we are trying to understand in the world. 
Our metaphors guide how we can, should, and do act on a concept within a particular learning context. 

Beyond the skeletal literal core I believe the most apt metaphor for teaching is catalyzing a particular community's perspective of the world, their culture, in the learner. 
If you teach biology then you are responsible for helping students become proficient at seeing the world as an expression of biological principles. 
There is a whole range of phenomena that are considered 'biological' and a whole other range that are not. 
If you do animal experiments then you would pay attention to their mating behaviors, but you would not be taking a properly biological perspective by gossiping about who in the department is mating with whom (unless, of course, you established observation protocols, collected data and made suitable comparisons to other mating activities.) 
There is a large set of biological ideas and concepts that have idiosyncratic means of expression within that culture. 
A biology teacher is responsible for ensuring that the student learn to become 'literate' in that culture. 

Elementary Teaching

My primary concern is elementary teaching. 
Teaching elementary-age kids is slightly different, but only because we do not think of children as learning a special aspect of our culture, but learning the overarching culture within which subjects and fields of study like biology are embedded. 
For example, think about a fish. 
A fish does not have any concept of the water in which it swims. 
A fish will have concepts of other fish and plants and the mud at the bottom. 
But, it cannot have much of an idea of water because it has always existed in it. 
Our culture is the water in which we swim, except under certain circumstances, we don't have a way to relate to it as a distinct aspect of our world because from an intuitive subjective perspective it IS our world. 

The challenge at the elementary level is to understand the culture that you are going to catalyze in your students. 
The essential elements are the ways that we govern our own and other people’s behavior for the common good (a.k.a. power), what and how we exchange with each other to get our needs met, and the consciousness that results from being embedded within those power structures and exchange processes. 
(Based on the work of Sharif Abdullah and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne with Sardovaya, an NGO in Sri Lanka.) 
In this way of looking at passing on our culture and society to children what is most essential is not the delivery of knowledge, skills and information. 
Knowledge, skills, and information are an important aspect of the exchange that happens, but more important that these elements of exchange is the power structure that shapes the behaviors of everyone involved and the resulting consciousness. 

The problems of the typical power structures in traditional classrooms have been well known since the early 20th century with the publication of John Dewey's Democracy and Education in 1916 and reiterated periodically through the works of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Lev Vygotsky, Raymond & Dorothy Moore, George Leonard, Howard Gardner, Alfie Kohn, Lisa Delpit, Ivan Illich, Niel Postman, Parker Palmer, and many others. 
David Elkind in his books has shown that by about the third grade most children have symptoms of stress and burnout that prompt adults to seek medical and psychiatric attention. 
This indicates that the consciousness resulting from the immersion in a traditional system of classroom power that dictates the delivery of knowledge, skills and information from teacher to student is often negative. 

I think the primary problem for teachers and parents is the fact that they are like fish in water when they think about trying to improve classroom schooling. 
They do not have a concept of the power structures, exchange processes and resulting consciousness because they have been swimming in the same water all their lives and unconsciously accept that a constant struggle not to drown is perfectly normal and maybe necessary. 
They have no idea that something else is possible and even if it is possible it is unknown. 
As the folk wisdom of abuse survival goes, most people prefer the devil they know to the devil of the unknown that promises goodness. 

Taking Issue With Redefing Teaching

The meaning I presented above explains the resistance to change that is characteristic of most schools and communities. 
There is a perfectly normal and acceptable definition that views it as the delivery of knowledge, skill and information in a classroom. 
It feels intuitively right and is very well known, it is safe. 
Then people like me come along and try to point out that there is an even better possibility. 
But it doesn't matter what I say because it is unknown, unfamiliar and understanding it may involve reflecting unfavorably on past and present situations. 
Most people are not interested. 
They have more pressing issues in their lives and don’t have the time or energy to put into questioning everything. 

It's a good objection and I counter it only with the simple question of whether the status quo is really acceptable. 
Is it really acceptable to induce stress and burnout in children who are only 9 or 10 years old? 
Is it really acceptable to immerse children who are developing the very foundations of their social identity in a dictatorial system when they are going to be expected to function within a democratic system as an adult? 
Is it really acceptable to neglect half of the learning process? 
Obviously, I do not accept the status quo in the majority of schools. 
I only encourage you to consider my perspective.
I have also written about what it takes to be a good teacher. It is also crucial to consider how education policy should be transformed based on this perspective. 

P.S. If you would like to explore further alternative perspectives on teaching I recommend you look at the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO).

24 September 2018

What Does It Take To Be A Good Teacher?

If you want to be a good teacher here is what it takes:

  1. A passion for teaching and
  2. a school or other teaching environment that supports you to express your passion for teaching.

The passion for teaching can take two forms, a passion for helping students OR a passion for living from the perspective of your subject. 
If you have both, then you are twice blessed.

If your passion is for the students, then you should play to that strength and structure your teaching as a process of following their interests as much as possible. 
That way you maximize their connection to the learning process and their investment in success.

If your passion is centered on your subject, then you should play to that strength and structure your teaching as a process of discovering what the world looks like from that specific perspective. 
Every subject or field of study is a way of viewing the world, not just a bunch of information. 
As a view of the world there are things worth paying attention to and other things that are a waste of attention. 
If you were teaching biology, for instance, you would pay attention to which experimental animals are mating with other animals in the experiment, but you would ignore which experimenters were mating with other experimenters in the department. 
(Unless, of course, you applied the same experimental method and collected data to make a useful comparison of mating behaviors.)

The school or other teaching environment (in case you are home schooling or a "trainer" in a non-school setting) will be a very large factor in your experience of teaching. 
If you are passionate about the students and expect to be a warm fuzzy nurturing kind of teacher, but your school is all about strict adherence to government standards and teaching to get arbitrary test scores, then you will get severely disillusioned and burn-out.

Make sure that you get real solid information about any place you are expecting to teach. 
Figure out what your values are and then devise strategies for finding out what the real values of the school are, too. 
You would do well to make personal connections with current staff to make sure you can see through their marketing rhetoric to find out what really goes on.

There are, of course, exceptionally good teachers who bucked the system. 
John Taylor Gatto and Jaime Escalante are just two notable examples. 
But John Taylor Gatto did not even set out to be a teacher, let alone a maverick teacher who skirted the domination of the powers that be in the New York City Public Schools. 
According to what I have heard him say and have read he sort of backed into teaching and then stuck with it. 
In the process he became disillusioned, but had very strong values and some lucky breaks that allowed him to succeed.

Do yourself a favor and make your choices more deliberately than that so you can spend the next 20-30 years doing it right the first time, instead of figuring it out from scratch.

The Question of Being a Good Teacher From One Who is Disillusioned

On Yahoo! Answers this great question was asked and my answer was chosen by the asker as the best answer:

Should I teach? 
I love kids but hate politics?

I recently obtained a master's degree in Creative Writing, and had always imagined that I would teach and write. 
But, this past year I worked as an Instructional Aide and saw so many negative things about teaching that I feel very turned off. 
Here's my deal:

I actually LOVED the kids that I worked with, but found it very hard disciplining them. 
They don't respect or listen to me, and though I was terrific working one-on-one, I couldn't hold their interest at all when I was in front of the class. 
I also saw a lot of disenchanted teachers who seemed to hate their job and complain all day about the kids. 
I saw evil office politics, bizarre administration rules, and ridiculous educational policies overwhelming the teachers.

Please give me some insight about this problem. 
I have this idealistic dream of what teaching is, but I don't like the reality.
posted by rugger_betty25

Best Answer - As Chosen by the Asker 
It sounds to me like you are thinking that in order to teach you have to teach in a school. 
Consider teaching in an environment that does not require you to submit to the evil, bizarre, and ridiculous stuff that you experienced in that school.

Consider teaching through other kinds of programs. 
There is a non-profit teen cafe in a town where I used to live (The Boiler Room) that hosted writing groups. 
Maybe you could find a similar kind of organization that would allow you to offer classes or facilitate writing groups. 
Consider tutoring. 
Consider working with alternative schools, private schools, home schoolers, and/or youth oriented service organizations.

If you have the passion to teach you should teach, but don't sacrifice your sanity in the process. 
Do not settle for a crazy making organization, it's not worth it. 
You might have to be creative and innovative to make it work, but what better use can you make of your life than expressing your talents in the service of educating youth?

Being a good teacher is not just about getting good teaching skills, it's also about finding a school or other teaching environment that will demand good teaching from you. 
It is critical that you look for organizations that have education policies in place that are supportive.
Good teachers can be created by an environment that demands good teaching, and bad teachers can be created by environments that distract teachers with irrelevant demands on their attention.
Catalyzing learning is the core purpose of teaching and when schools miss that point then they are likely to miss the boat for supporting good teachers, too.

P.S. Here is retired veteran teacher Marion Brady's story of how he became a good teacher, AFTER he had been lauded by others as one for many years. 
His story makes my points beautifully because despite the recognition of others he knew he was not really a good teacher until he had an epiphany that lead him to focus on the learning rather than the window dressing of teaching that too often misleads us.
And his ability to continue with his radical departure from the norm was bolstered by the political clout he had from all the recognition he had earned as a puppet of the teaching norms of his day.
John Taylor Gatto mentioned in one of his books or talks about how he had started his geurilla curriculum under the political protection of a sympathetic principal, but when that principal left he sought out public recognition in order to solidify his political position independently of who his principal would be. 
That's the kind of political manipulations that most teachers seem to resent, like the one who asked the Yahoo question above.

Here is an essay that talks about how many schools are missing the mark with "accountability", look for the example of the teacher who gets up in a community meeting to say he "used to be a good teacher."
Here is another fascinating resource on the qualities of a good teacher. UNICEF, United Nations Children's Fund, asked children 8-12 years old throughout the world, "What makes a good teacher?"